Thursday, December 16, 2010

Selections from Alfred Tennyson

The first five stanzas (following a set pattern of ababbcbcc) provide a description of the land of the Lotos-eaters and narrate how the men become caught up: "We will return no more," they say,"Our island home / is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam." Following the first five stanzas are the eight stanzas (irregular in rhyme, ending with a 29-line eighth stanza with triple rhymes, with the exception of the first two lines, it follows an aaa, bbb, ccc pattern) labeled as a "choric song" which is spoken from the first-person perspective of the men detained on the island. The men admit, "Dear is the memory of our wedded lives, / And dear the last embraces of our wives / And their warm tears" but convince themselves that "all hath suffer'd change" and morphed in to confusion such that they should "Let what is broken so remain." The poem ends with the slurred, soporific tones of these lines: "Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore / Than labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar; / Oh rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.

This poem was first published in 1832 and significantly revised in 1842. It is based on Book 9 of Homer's Odyssey in which the men encounter the Lotos-eaters, who feed on Lotos-flowers. Several of Odysseus's men are seduced into eating the Lotos-flowers and as a result lose their desire to return home. This poem has been read as indicating anxiety about poetic language's (and aesthetics', more broadly) capacity to lure readers away from industry toward idleness; as a critique of artists who retreated into aesthetic worlds to the exclusion of political involvement; as an allegory of alienated labor (Marxist reading), and most specifically, some have seen the Lotos-eaters as an image of the stalled movement during the passage of the Reform Act (1832).

"The Lady of Shalott"
"The Lady of Shalott" is a ballad in four parts. Metrically, the poem is generally in iambic tetrameter, usually associated with a playful, nursery rhyme-like feel. The fifth line of every stanza ends with "Camelot" and the final line (usually shorter, in trimeter) of every stanza "Shalott" (with the exception of one which reads "Sang Sir Lancelot"). 

The first part tells of the island of Shallot, and the Lady of Shalott in her tower. The second part goes through how "There she weaves by night and day" the subjects that she sees in her mirror, "Shadows of the world" including "surly village-churls, "red cloaks of market girls," "a troop of damsels glad," "an abbot on an ambling pad," "a curly shepherd-lad, and a "long-hair'd page in crimson clad." Sadly, she has no suitors, "But in her web she still delights / To weave the mirror's magic sights." The third part tells of Sir Lancelot's foray into Camelot: he bawdily alludes to Autolycus's song in The Winter's Tale singing "Tirra lirra," and immediately "She left the web, she left the loom." Once she looks directly down upon Sir Lancelot, her mirror cracks and she cries that "The curse is come upon me." The final stanza tells of her descent from the tower into a boat which she labels with her name, "The Lady of Shalott." She floats down the river and sings her last song, after which she freezes to death. The knights behold her corpse as she floats into Camelot, "but Lancelot mused a little space; / He said, 'She has a lovely face; / God in his mercy lend her grace, / The lady of Shalott." 

Like "The Lotos-eaters," "The Lady of Shalott" was published first in 1832 and then revised in 1842. It presents an episode from an Arthuriad. The poem has been seen in terms of a critique of separate spheres, the artist's relationship with the world beyond and the problematic situation wherein the artist dies if she looks upon the "real world,"or more politically specific as representing the plight of handloom weavers in the face of mechanizing society. "The Lady of Shalott's" mythic status in the Victorian era is echoed in the numerous images which artists produced of her.  

"Ulysses" is in the form of a dramatic monologue. Essentially, Ulysses narrates in iambic pentameter how upon his return home he cannot be but restless and desirous of travel once again:

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and lone; on shore, and when 
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart...

The first part tells of how his political domestic duties are not enough to satisfy his hunger for life experience offered by travel, and the second part tells of how he looks upon his vessel in the port and gets ready for yet another voyage.  

The form of the dramatic monologue enables an ironic distance between poet and the speaker. In this way, Ulysses's heroism is clearly suspect--critics have read his neglect of political duties as a critique of the Tory administration's indifference to reform. Ulysses's desire to go forth once again is often contrasted with the weary, belabored rhythm of lines like "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" (the final line) suggesting that Ulysses himself might be inadvertently articulating his own weariness and revealing his heroism in old age as rather foolhardy. 

Tennyson himself offers a reading which substantiates a sense of struggle in the poem: Tennyson remarked that the monologue was written shortly after Hallam's death in order to demonstrate the need to move on and go forward in life despite the difficulty presented by loss.

"The Coming of Arthur"
STRUCTURE/SUMMARY: This is the first poem in a twelve-poem series (in blank verse) known as Idylls of the King (published between 1856-1885). King Leodogran appeals to Arthur to help him with the beasts and the heathen hordes that have been wreaking havoc in his kingdom. Arthur deals a defeat to all of these parties, and afterwards requests Guinevere's hand in marriage, because he says, "I cannot will my will, nor work my work" until he has been joined with her. Because Arthur does not dress like a king but just like another knight, Leodogran is doubtful about his lineage and hence hesitant. Leodogran receives different accounts of his lineage from different people including his chamberlain, Arthur's emissaries, and Arthur's half sister Bellicent. Finally, Leodogran has a dream (expanded into 18 lines) that Arthur has been crowned in heaven, and so he consents to the marriage. The poem closes with Arthur refusing to offer a tribute to the old Roman lords.

The poem's insistence (through Arthur) on the need to unite with Guinevere in order for him to rule is interesting as it has yielded much criticism on gender relations in the Victorian era. Arthur says:

"Shall I not lift her from this land of beasts
Up to my throne, and side by side with me?
What happiness to reign a lonely king,
Vext--O ye stars that shudder over me,
O earth that soundest hollow under me,
Vext with waste dreams? for saving I be joined
To her that is the fairest under heaven,
I seem as nothing in the mighty world,
And cannot will my will, nor work my work
Wholly, nor make myself in mine own realm
Victor and lord. But were I joined with her,
Then might we live together as one life,
And reigning with one will in everything
Have power on this dark land to lighten it,
And power on this dead world to make it live."

Arthur's belief in the ennobling impact of marriage and the role of women as to comfort, support, and uphold men in their public duties is commonly cited as particularly Victorian, patriarchal value. As Stephen Ahern writes, "identifications of the beloved with a promise of ennobling self realizations" are repeated throughout the Idylls. Of course, throughout the work as a whole, the above belief of Arthur's will be questioned (via Guinevere's affair with Lancelot, most obviously, but as Ahern argues, also by the predominance of Guinevere's voice in the rest of the narratives). 

"Tithonus" is a dramatic monologue given by Tithonus addressing Aurora over the plight of his immortality, which unfortunately does not mean eternal youth. The poem begins with a vision of the woods in the forests and men growing old. Tithonus, however, must grow old slowly in Aurora's arms. Still, he remembers when he was young and when he was young and asked her for eternal life. He now wants her to take the gift back. In the dark, Tithonus says that he has a "glimpse of that dark world where I was born," but when Aurora streaks across the skies, she does not answer his request to be mortal once again but merely sheds some tears as if suggesting that "The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts." Tithonus then recalls his youth when in love with Aurora, unsure whether the youth who loved was in fact one and the same as his aged self now. He closes the poem with a final request that she "Release [him], and restore [him] to the ground" so that he need not suffer the daily humiliation of her revealing his old and decrepit form as she rises and shines upon him. 


In the Greek legend, Tithonus, the son of Lamedon (king of Troy) and Strymo (daughter of the river Scamander) was taken by Eos (Aurora) as a lover. Eos asked Zeus to grant Tithonus eternal life and Zeus consented, but unfortunately, she forgot to ask for eternal youth so eventually Tithonus aged into the form of a grasshopper. In Tennyson's version, Tithonus has asked Eos for eternal life, and it is she who has granted it thoughtlessly "Like wealthy men who care not how they give." Subsequently, "the Hours," goddesses who resent Tithonus's immortality, are the ones who subject him to aging. 

Tennyson's wrote first version of this poem, "Tithon" in 1833 (eventually it was revised for publication in 1859). The poem was intended as a complement to "Ulysses"--Ulysses desires more of life, but Tithonus, who receives eternal life, finds that it is in fact better to remain mortal along with the rest of mankind.

In blank verse and iambic pentameter, Tennyson retells the tail of Lady Godiva, who begs her lord the Earl to remove taxes that were too stringent upon his people. When he flippantly tells her that he would remove the tax if she were to ride naked through the town, she does so. "Clothed on with chastity," most of the townspeople stay inside and dare not look. "One low churl" chances to take a peep, but his eyes shrivel up into his head, "So the powers who wait / On noble deeds, cancell'd a sense misus'd."

"Godiva" was written in 1840 after a trip to Coventry, where the "Godiva pageant" yearly took place. Tennyson's version of the Godiva myth is highly Romanticized, and interestingly, as Daniel Donoghue points out, does the work of managing to resolve certain seemingly contradictory traits. Her nakedness is clearly sexualized and heightens reader prurience, while at the same time the poem insists upon her chastity. Furthermore, the peeping "churl" is punished by God, signaling the existence of a higher order which will ensure that "moral" and "immoral" are readily distinguishable.

"Lucretius" is written also in blank verse, iambic pentameter. The poem's structure is as follows: it begins and ends with Lucilla's (Lucretius's wife) actions, but for most of the poem, we get Lucretius's speech. In the beginning, Lucilla finds her husband devoid of passion for her, and so she brews a "philtre" which supposedly had  power "To lead an errant passion home again." This mixture disorders Lucretius's faculties, and in an extended monologue, he describes having terrible dreams of a sexual and violent nature involving female domination (he dreams of being suffocated by a circle of Hetairai, Greek prostitutes, and seeing the breasts of Helen shoot forth fire and wither away a piercing sword). He continues, calling out to Venus to help him, but soon coming to the conclusion that he cannot truly be "careless" and calm unless he kills himself: he envies what he perceives to be the god-like existence where "nothing to mar the sober majesties / Of settled, sweet, Epicurean life."Believing deeply in the Epicurean philosophy that as nothing but a collection of atoms, he need not fear death for it is merely dissipation, Lucretius kills himself. The poem ends with Lucilla rushing in and shrieking that she had failed in her duty to him.

That a poem entitled "Lucretius" begins with Lucilla ("Lucilla, wedded to Lucretius, found / Her master cold...) seems to offer a clue as to how to read the work. Indeed, Lucretius is "framed" by Lucilla in more ways than one--both in the structure of the poem, and by her actions. Lucretius has no idea that the how he applies his whole philosophical system and his life story here are controlled by Lucilla's philtre--little does he know that it is her action that have catapulted him into his dark philosophical musings. She is the source of his monologue, and though the poem closes with his words ("Care not thou! / Thy duty? What is duty? Fare thee well!"), they are broken words which dramatically underscore his limited understanding: fancying that he is above and beyond such moral codes as "duty," he is in fact actually undone by his own inattentiveness to his duties as a husband.

Maud: A Monodrama
The poem contains many metrical variations depending on the state of the speaker's mind. The "plot" of Maud is briefly as follows:

The poem begins with four-line stanzas in hexameter, in which the speaker tells of his father's suicide (crushing himself into a pit with a stone), his mother's death, and his general sorrow over his relatively low station in life. The tone and meter contribute to the rant-like quality of this section. When Maud, a childhood friend, returns to the Hall (where he lives), he vows not to be affected by her, telling himself that he will "bury [him]self in [him]self" because he feels that her wealthy father has been in some measure responsible for his own father's death. Soon he progresses to a slightly less vexed state of Epicurean philosophy, contending: "Be 
mine a philosopher’s life in the quiet woodland ways /

Where if I cannot be gay let a passionless peace be my lot."

Despite his best efforts, the narrator falls in love with Maud, and they meet frequently in a garden. In describing these blissful moments, the narrator lapses into a sing-songy, almost nursery-rhyme like meter:

Birds in the high Hall-garden
   When twilight was falling,
Maud, Maud, Maud, Maud,
   They were crying and calling.

The narrator, however, finds Maud's brother to be an enemy. He vows that he will bury his hate for the brother because of his love for Maud. He now even thinks that he ought to take care of himself, faltering, "If I be dear, / If I be dear to someone else." Unfortunately, at an upper-class dinner event which the narrator is not invited to, the brother discovers him in the garden and strikes him. Maud's brother is killed in the ensuing scuffle, and the narrator runs off, disordered again in his mind. 

At the end of the poem, after Maud's death, the narrator makes his final decision: to fight in the Crimean War. He gives the following justification:

Let it flame or fade, and the war roll down like a wind,
We have proved we have hearts in a cause, we are noble still,
And myself have awaked, as it seems, to the better mind;
It is better to fight for the good than to rail at the ill;
I have felt with my native land, I am one with my kind,
I embrace the purpose of God, and the doom assign’d

He expresses the above lines evenly and resolutely, with some metrical control and regularity of rhyme, yet such a conclusion smacks more of the fatalistic, ending after all with the "doom assign'd" despite the ostensibly  "noble" cause.

Tennyson's defined his designation of the poem as a "monodrama" thus: "different phases of passion in one person to take the place of different characters." In other words, Maud is a dramatization of a single character's different states of mind, much like (as Tennyson would mention also) in the case of Hamlet. This has seemed to be misunderstood in the poem's contemporary reception: Gladstone thought the poem  "catch-penny clap trap" and Charles Kingsley thought it unmanly, both harsh critics seemingly ignoring that Tennyson the poet is separate from the speaker of the monodrama and that inconsistencies in form meant to match the subject's changing states of mind.

Like In Memoriam, Maud concentrates on themes of love and loss, but next to the former poem's measured lines and stanzas, Maud seems more a dramatization of the effects of loss gone awry in an individual's mind. Whereas we get the sense that the speaker in In Memoriam reaches a certain calm and manages to transform loss into a means to reflect on human existence more broadly, the speaker in Maud ends up channeling his energy into the violence of war.

"The Ancient Sage"
The general structure of "The Ancient Sage" is a dialogue between a young man and an old sage, set in a time "a thousand summers ere the time of Christ." The old man reads the sentiments of the young from a scroll that the youth has been carrying. Thus, the poem reaches conclusions dialectically, oppositions providing the driving force for ideas.

The poem begins with the old man heading up to the hills, envisioning that "force is from the heights." The old man pauses to read from the young man's scroll, which muses on the "nameless power" that is "never seen or heard." The sage replies with an extended musing on that nameless power and suggesting the following:

For nothing worthy proving can be proven,
Nor yet disproven: wherefore thou be wise,
Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt,
And cling to Faith beyond the forms of Faith!

The youth further questions this nameless power, and the sage articulates that it is feeling as opposed to knowing which is "highest." When the youth then turns to talking of time, the sage returns that the "with the nameless is nor Day nor Hour," that the nameless power is eternal. The youth then seems to plunge into a bit of despair over the limitations of man under the weight of time, to which the sage replies with the following metaphor: "Who knows? or whether this earth-narrow life / Be yet but yolk, and forming in the shell."

Yet the youth continues to find existence on earth to be dark, and the sage calls attention to the possibility that this "darkness" might be inside of man's own perception/subjectivity:

My son, the world is dark with griefs and graves,
So dark that men cry out against the Heavens.Who knows but that the darkness is in man? 

The sage's solution ultimately seems to be some sort of loss of self: "But utter clearness, and thro’ loss of Self / The gain of such large life as match’d with ours / Were Sun to spark--unshadowable in words, /
Themselves but shadows of a shadow-world." In losing the "self," lived through symbols including, perhaps most importantly, words, the sage claims he sometimes reaches a sense of the nameless. The youth replies that these seem "idle gleams," and that "still the clouds remain." These are the final words of the youth, and the sage closes the poem with remarks on the futility of such "counter-terms" in "endless war" as they are so much up to one's subjective perception. At the very end, the sage turns kind of didactic, telling the youth to return to his city and understand that such things are beyond what man in his present state can comprehend. The sage encourages the youth to "think well" because to do so is to open the way for doing well and if he should continue to humbly look to his blessings, he might pass beyond the "Night and Shadow" and "see / The high-heaven dawn of more than mortal day / Strike on the Mount of Vision!"

This later poem of Tennyson's (1885), was by Tennyson's own account "very personal" and supposedly indebted to his readings of Chinese philosopher Lao-Tze. It's ideas are fairly difficult and abstract--the reader feels, perhaps, as uncomprehending of the philosopher's abstractions as the youth.

Howard Fulweiler reads the turn towards the didactic moralism at the end as Tennyson's unification between "knowledge" and "virtue," terms that had generally come to be dissociated in the "modern" Victorian paradigms for life. I think this gives an important clue as to how to approach "The Ancient Sage"--in particular, Tennyson's casting his net towards ancient, and apparently non-Western philosophies in his admitted indebtness to Lao-Tze, seems to want to transcend the structures of Victorian thought. In a poem about reaching the "nameless" beyond the symbols (such as linguistic contradictions like light and dark, good and evil, or markers of passing time) by which we live and construct our "selves," Tennyson reaches across time and space to something ostensibly as remote from his own temporal and spatial framework as possible. Yet, the reference to Christ which begins the poem, and the sage's final injunction to the youth to return from whence he came signal the relevance of these contexts to the age in which Tennyson was living: it seems that Tennyson suggests this remote temporality and spatiality might help unify knowledge and virtue, and perhaps in doing so, then also revive Christianity within a modern context.

"The Palace of Art"
"The Palace of Art" consists of short, regular "abab" stanzas throughout. In the first part, the speaker/poet tells his audience, very simply: "I built my soul a lordly pleasure-house" (reminiscent of Kubla Khan's "stately pleasure dome"). There, his soul "would live alone unto herself" and "Reign...apart, a quiet King." The soul seems pleased by this, and the speaker goes on to proudly describe the many different rooms that he has constructed, "fit for every mood / And change of my still soul." Amidst these descriptions, the stanzas break out into a somewhat unsettling regularity, where each and every stanza begins with "Or" followed by whatever alternative scene of art it presents. The speaker brags that these are "Not less than truth design'd" and "Not less than life design'd."

The poem transitions into charting the soul's reaction to living in "The Palace of Art." In general, she is proud of her position: "I take possession of man's mind and deed. / I care not what the sects may brawl. / I sit as God holding no form of creed, / But contemplating all." The isolation feels powerful, and the "intellectual throne" thrilling.

After three years of living in this palace, however, "on the fourth she fell, / Like Herod, when the shout was in his ears, / Struck thro' with pangs of hell."The soul realizes that the isolation and solitude are in fact painful and it has become "A spot of dull stagnation" and nauseatingly reflexive: "Back on herself her serpent pride had curl'd." Unhappily, the soul asks the speaker/poet to make her a "cottage in the vale...where I may mourn and pray." The poem does not quite end so neatly, however -- the final stanza gives the soul telling the speaker not to destroy the palace towers, for "Perchance I may return with others there / When I have purged my guilt."

This was another one of Tennyson's earlier poems, written first in 1833 and republished in 1842. On the most basic level, the allegorical nature of this poem seems fairly straightforward, the moral clear. As contemporaries remarked, and as Tennyson himself confirmed, the poem is about the limits of the artist in isolation, the intellectual thinker who has lost his connection to real life. A slightly more complicated allegory might be one which warns against becoming seduced by the power of the Romantic "symbol," reveling in its poetic power and forgetting, perhaps, its essential connection to the human (After all the poem begins as Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" does) and hence its limitations in aiding the poet to reach something greater.

Tennyson's dedication to Richard Chevenix Trench, who is said to have inspired this poem, indicates the limits of a purely allegorical interpretation of his poem while not denying its general validity. Tennyson wrote, in 1832: "I send you friend, a sort of allegory / (You are an artist and you will understand / Its many lesser meanings ) of a soul...." These so-called "lesser meanings," I argue, complicate the allegory in important ways. Perhaps the most obvious complication is the final stanza, in which the soul repents of her pride engendered by living in the palace of art but yet thinks that she might return. "Perchance," she says, "I may return with others there" (italics are mine). What these lines seem to reveal, then, is that the sin is not in the attempt to reach an understanding which transcends contingencies of time and human suffering, but in the apartness, solitude, and isolation through which this transcendence has been pursued. The soul's "perchance," however, seems uncertain--how does one actually transcend contingencies of time and human suffering when one is with others? Or, does the soul mean "with other souls?" Wouldn't this be the same essential sin of isolation then?

This final stanza deliberately avoids answering such questions but it serves as an acknowledgment that even when the soul has "learned" she still desires and yearns for transcendent understanding. This desire seems as essential to the nature of the soul as its realization that it cannot be solitary and apart. While the poem offers no way of reconciling the two and definitely still critiques isolation, it doesn't suggest that one can or should simply give up on the desire for transcendence that drives the tendency towards apartness.
Another complication that might yield "lesser meaning" comes out of the strange detachment of the speaker from the soul. The regularity of the stanzas, the consistency of a rather matter-of-fact tone signal this detachment. The feminine gender also tends to further distance the speaker from soul (presuming most audiences would presume speaker is male knowing the poet to be Tennyson, and that such thoughts on art and the universal are generally appropriated only to men). The clinical attitude that the speaker has towards the progress of his soul lends to the poem is in deep contrast to the fluctuating emotions often in the dramatic monologues that Tennyson wrote. While the soul in the palace of art goes through the many moods depending on what room she inhabits, the speaker is oddly stoic and without tension. I would argue he almost seems (soullessly) sterile (especially in contrast to the female soul) to a fault. Yet, but paradoxically, he creates. This paradox perhaps critiques the detachment, suggesting that creation independent of the soul might be beautiful and transcendent, but ultimately rather stillborn, stagnant.

No comments: